Gary Locke, Jin Liqun, the Chambishi mine and the Myitsone dam

November 12, 2011

Today’s International Herald Tribune writes about the popularity of Gary Locke, the American ambassador to China, who queues up at the Great Wall like an ordinary citizen and flies economy class. But the article also notes that Locke likes to talk about how his father, an immigrant from China, “worked every day of the year and taught him respect for family, education and hard work.”

This is a refrain that resonates with the Chinese government and many Chinese people, including those building dams and investing in factories. So it does with many Americans: in the same issue of the newspaper, economist Tyler Cowen advocates a “pro-discipline and pro-wealth cultural revolution,” bringing to mind Aihwa Ong’s observation years ago that “Asians” (i.e., increasingly, Chinese) had become the ideal enterprising American subjects.

Europeans are clearly the laggards here: Jin Liqun, the head of China’s overseas investment agency, recently admonished Europe’s “worn-out welfare societies” to change labour laws that “induce sloth, indolence rather than hard working.” As a friend from Benin commented, “For the very first time since I don’t know when a non-Westerner is dictating a code of conduct to Westerners! Are Chinese going to devise conditionalities for loans to the West similar to the ones of Structural Adjustment Programme to the Third World?”

Maybe. For now, Hungary, whose government has recently come out with the vision of a “work-based society,” announced the opening of two more Confucius Institutes. Do so many Hungarians really want to learn Chinese? Probably not, but the mayor of Szeged, where one of the new institutes is planned, says Chinese investors have “more trust in cities that have them.” (The mayor, by the way, is from the opposition Socialist Party.)

These reports make interesting reading against the background of the two biggest news about China’s overseas investments in the past month: the suspension of the Myitsone Dam project in Burma and the strike at the Chambishi mine in Zambia that led to the — albeit temporary — collective dismissal of all workers over demands for higher wages. A new report by Human Rights Watch criticizes Chinese-owned mines in Zambia for maintaining poor wages, long shifts and low standards of health protection compared to other foreign investors. Perhaps the most interesting finding of the report is that Chinese companies tolerate the presence of one union but not the other, more combative one.
The Myitsone halt triggered a range of diverse responses, but aside from political implications, the reaction of a frustrated Chinese worker on the construction site was this: “It’s tragic that a country like this doesn’t hurry up to develop! And it has the nerve to talk about democratically elected president this, bowing to popular opinion that! … What’s even sadder is the ignorance of ordinary people stupefied by politicians!” In contrast, a promotional film by Sinohydro’s 11th Office, the project’s contractor, describes the progress of the construction as a heroic and victorious battle against the jungle, malaria and Dengue fever, in terms reminiscent of the labour competitions of the Maoist era, such as “battleground” 战场 and “front” 战线. (The film has been removed from the company’s website, but a description is available here.)
What gives such talk weight is that, state and corporate propaganda aside, managers of Chinese companies abroad — not only state-run ones but also the private telecommunications giant Huawei — genuinely take hard work seriously, often take pride in their dedication, and are nonplussed by the lack of ambition they see in their local colleagues. A thirty-year-old manager at Huawei Hungary echoed Jin Liqun avant la lettre when I talked to him in October. If Europeans did not change their work habits they would lose out definitively to Asia in ten years, he said. Yet he phrased his concerns in corporate rather than national terms, as befits a multinational company: “The Hungarians have difficulties adapting to the culture of the company,” he said. “We don’t want people to just hang around (混). We want people who can perform.” The ideal managerial subjects, indeed.

The Michael Sata presidency: “Will China Lose Zambia?”

October 4, 2011

The inauguration of Michael Sata as the new president of Zambia on 23 September attracted little media attention. This is somewhat surprising, considering that Sata, in opposition, has been quoted in most China/Africa articles as the spokesman of discontent with the practices of Chinese investors. Zambia has been both an important and early destination of Chinese invesment and a country where problems with it have been particularly well-publicized. Sata has been talking about expelling Chinese, but also Indian and Lebanese traders from the country; expropriating and redistributing to the poor part of the shares of foreign-invested companies: and recognising Taiwan as an independent nation. So will his election be a turning point for China’s African engagement?

Illustrating that the battle lines regarding Chinese investment are far more complex than the usual picture of human rights versus authoritarianism, Sata regards Robert Mugabe as his role model. This rarely comes up in Western media — although Sata’s hubris has been pointed out in Sarah Hardus’s research — yet it suggests that China has been the butt of Sata’s anger simply because it has been the most active investor. Showing that the battle lines are also complex in Chinese media, the largely liberal Southern Weekend,  for which the comparison to Mugabe is a negative one, published a feature on Sata’s election, entitled “Will China Lose Zambia?”

The article says that during the campaign, the Chinese embassy advised its citizens to stay inside, stock up on necessities and be prepared for an emergency. But, apart from the pelting of a Xinhua News Agency van with stones (nobody was hurt and the agency, apparently, didn’t report it) there was no anti-Chinese violence. (A farm ran by a state-owned Chinese company, Nongken, even provided its Zambian workers a van to transport them to the polling station.)

After his inauguration, Sata’s first diplomatic act was to meet with the Chinese ambassador. He declared that Zambia still welcomed Chinese investors, although they “must also benefit Zambian people.” The article concludes firmly that business will pretty much continue as usual, despite Sata’s capacity for the unpredictable.


Chinese newspaper demands action against Chinese companies violating African labour rights

March 3, 2011

The   21st Century Economic Herald 21世纪经济报道, a newspaper of the Southern Group, published an article by Guo Kai 郭凯 on 21 February, entitled 赞比亚事件:理性规束中国商人海外”劳资异化行为”(The Zambian incident: Reasonable constraints for Chinese businessmen overseas engaging in “behaviour alienating labour from capital”). Commenting on a Zambian court’s indictment of two Chinese managers who shot Zambian mine workers, the paper says that the Zambian government’s announcement of a blacklist of Chinese companies that violate labour rights is insufficient: the Chinese government should also cooperate in not awarding these companies contracts and “ostracizing” (封锁) these companies and individuals. Although the paper notes that, in 2011, projected Chinese investment in Zambia is $2.4 billion compared to a GDP of 13 billion, “China cannot affort opportunism,” because the “incident” has strengthened anti-Chinese sentiments and driven up support for the opposition, which is opposed to Chinese investment. The article also comments that the reason for such “evil” acts by Chinese investors is that China still doesn’t have mature labour-capital relations, and some local governments disregard labour rights in favour of the interests of capital.

This is an interesting article because, while it refers to central government decrees and the “harmonious society,” it uses Africa to criticize domestic violations of labour rights. Is it zealously pro-government or veiledly oppositional?

New “China in … everywhere” book in the pipeline

February 26, 2011

Spanish journalists Heriberto Araújo and Pablo Cardenal are working on a new book on China’s impact around the world, based on a year of travel across 24 countries, ranging from Ecuador to Burma and from Mocambique to Iran. To my knowledge this is the first book that documents Chinese investments on the ground with a global reach.

A preview of the book has just been published as a photo essay in Foreign Policy. Nice photos that nonetheless seem to emanate a rather sinister message of an invasion.

In a recent article in Hong Kong’s Sunday Morning Post, Araujo and Cardenal focus on Mozambique, where, they report, violent clashes between Chinese mine managers and African workers have continued over demands for higher wages and shorter working hours. They conclude that wages and working conditions remain worse than at Western employers (although, of course, in most places there aren’t any Western employers). But the article quotes a Zambian labour union leader as acknowledging that the Luanshya Copper Mines, owned by China Nonferrous Metals Mining Co., comes “close to the required labour standards.” According to the mine’s general manager, it has only 42 Chinese employees out of 2,500, wages start at $400, shifts are eight hours, five days a week, and there is free health care.

Considering that Zambia has seen the most protests and violence around Chinese mines, this is rather rapid improvement, although clearly, smaller companies may not be following these standards.